Sunday, January 19, 2020

After the rain

aka Tenki no Ko (Weather's Child)

Chalk another one up for the most important animator working today, even if it's not as good as his other masterpieces.

Written and directed by Makoto Shinkai

Spoiler alert: moderate

Weathering With You has developed a reputation as a disappointment, but realistically there was never much of any way around that: it was Makoto Shinkai's follow-up to what's probably the defining piece of Japanese animation of the 2010s, 2016's (and 2017's) international superhit, Your Name.  Indeed, Your Name's popularity was arguably a big part of the problem—something you could actually witness in real time during the immediate aftermath of Your Name's release, which saw Shinkai slightly paralyzed, projecting his significant confusion and worry over the phenomenon he'd unleashed and wondering aloud what to do next.  Clearly, it seems to have left him with no perceived recourse, at least if he didn't want to disappoint the mass audience that he'd finally created for his work, except to keep playing his hits.

As a result, Weathering doesn't merely carry forward Your Name's adolescent longing and romantic impossibility, furthering the themes that Shinkai's been obsessed with since his humblest beginnings. No, it actively treats Your Name as a formula to be exploited, and it exploits it ruthlessly: the pair of kid protagonists (one rural, one urban, even!) who tentatively find themselves falling in love amidst magical realism; the fantasy crisis that threatens to separate them; the side characters who have personality but no real agency; the vague and semi-broken allegory for recent Japanese natural disasters; and, if you were wondering if it also has a caper setpiece that pins its emotional climax to a bunch of kinetic, actiony fluff, well, wonder no more.  (Whereas if you were wondering if it also uses its magical premise and a bunch of anime boob jokes to set up an unexpectedly powerful subversion of the anime boob joke, 100% likewise.)

It even has the same basic kind of detached epilogue, a years-later drawn-out decompression that attempts to grapple with the consequences of the ideas the film has expressed, except this time the epilogue is much worse and, arguably, aggressively stupid.  (Not that Shinkai's films have ever demonstrated an intellectual streak, uniformly preferring raw feeling over even perfunctory sense-making.)  On one hand, I'm just describing the tropes of Shinkai's chosen genre... but man, it's, like, real close, and the sole major non-cosmetic difference is that the favoring of the male perspective this time (for it was more subtly present throughout Your Name already) renders the female lead more opaque than most would prefer.  Yet if I were being charitable—and I'm apt to be awful charitable with this filmmaker, who may be the best thing going right now on either side of the Pacific—in many respects it feels like the mid-life summing up of everything he's done so far.  And when you put it that way, "exploiting formula" might even be a good thing.

Plus, if I'm being completely honest, a run-through of Your Name in different clothes is both 1)what I expected and 2)pretty much exactly what I wanted, and so if Shinkai's decided his best way forward is to repeat the best movie of 2017, I'm not complaining just because he gave me another 112 minutes' worth of rain and light and unhappy teenagers gifted miracles.  What disappointment persists really boils down to Weathering being lumpy and kludged-together in ways Your Name never felt, and it can be kind of outright baffling in its choices, particularly in the way that it's somehow a much better movie about what it isn't than what it is.  Now, it's not, I don't think, ever actually bad—hell, it's often the best, most affecting animation of 2019.  (Not to get ahead of myself here, but I love the stuffing out of this thing.)  But badness is incipient in a lot of places, and, if anything, it's a staggering exercise in enormous technical skill and emotional dexterity being brought to bear on some tremendously incoherent concepts.  Which, frankly, once again puts it right smack in the middle of Your Name territory; and, on paper, Weathering even looks more coherent, in that its plot holes are never so numerous nor so recklessly signposted within the film itself.  Though they definitely still exist, and they are still pretty huge.

So, on paper, then: Weathering treats with the story of Hodaka Morishima (Kotaro Daigo), a runaway from one of the minor Japanese islands, whom we meet on a boat to Tokyo and who almost immediately requires rescue from certain death, his savior being the seemingly-untrustworthy figure of Keisuke Suga (Shun Oguri). After several weeks, Hodaka realizes that being a homeless minor in Tokyo is actually pretty hard—he appears to keep body and soul together mostly thanks to the kindness of a McDonald's clerk who surreptitiously feeds him, one Hina Amano (Nana Mori)—and, at length, he takes up Keisuke's previously-deferred offer of help by becoming his live-in secretary and a cub reporter for his struggling publishing venture, a Weekly World News-style tabloid, which appears to have only one other writer, Keisuke's other live-in employee, Natsumi (Tsubasa Honda), who spends most of her time interviewing for real jobs.  It is not through Hodaka's new gig that he comes face-to-face with the true paranormal, however.  Indeed, he's already met her; and when, by good fortune, he's on hand to witness Hina about to get human-trafficked by a pair of gangsters and intervenes, she returns the favor by revealing that on the day of her mother's death, she found a dilapidated shrine on top of a highrise, where she was granted a certain power: the ability to stop the rain.  And this is a big deal, because Tokyo is in the midst of a record-setting monsoon season and there hasn't been a day without rain in just about as long as anybody can now remember.  Worse, it doesn't seem to show any signs of stopping of its own accord, and it shall not come as a surprise to you that the encroaching disaster and Hina's fate are intertwined.

Weathering With You is a bizarre and lopsided thing; for starters, it's structured so oddly you notice it while you're watching.  The lead-up is long and slow enough to get you antsy, and that feeds into an even longer (albeit much more entertaining) middle act that offers light comedy revolving around two major notions.  The first is the pair of makeshift families Hodaka has discovered—for in addition to Keisuke and Natsumi, orphan Hina has her brother (Sakura Kiryu) to look out for, and most of this film's principals expend inordinate efforts staying clear of child services.  The second is Hodaka and Hina's monetization of Hina's powers as a self-styled "100% Sunshine Girl," which is easily the most jarring thing in a movie that otherwise takes its time, given that we move immediately from Hodaka's not-quite-surprised-enough reaction to Hina's abilities to his bright idea to pimp sunshine on the Internet, all in about ten seconds of screentime and in the space of one single cut.  In fact, maybe the single strangest thing about the movie is how matter-of-factly everyone in it approaches our weather witch, normalizing her almost instantly; even as her activities are increasingly well-documented, Hina somehow manages to also remain a marginal nobody.  (Meanwhile, Hodaka is a comically terrible business manager: she plainly does not charge enough, still flat broke even as her clientele expands from widowed pensioners to major corporations.)

Finally, after all this horsing around, almost the entire actual plot of the movie winds up getting crunched into the last half hour.  (And not even really the last half hour—more like the twenty minutes before the ten minute epilogue.)  This certainly makes for an unusual viewing experience—it tends to remind one that Shinkai is entirely incapable of writing a screenplay that fills out its two hours in an ordinary, conventionally-developed way, which is why Children Who Chase Lost Voices (which attempts boilerplate conventionality) is astonishingly dull for a movie about a journey into a hollow Earth, and Your Name bears a disjointed script that doesn't even pretend not to be two different sci-fantasy movies sewn together—but an unusual experience doesn't necessarily mean an unpleasant one, and Weathering's low-key approach to the supernatural and its willingness to dawdle around with its characters' lives (and life in Tokyo, generally) are two of its blatant strengths.

That's particularly the case with Tokyo itself, to which Weathering was rather consciously intended as a love letter, and, considering where the plot takes the film, maybe a farewell; in this regard, Weathering is peak Shinkai, more-or-less the single Shinkai-est thing you could imagine.  The modal image of the film is almost certainly a painted-over 3-D landscape with shafts of light carved out of torrential rain, and nearly every image seeks to capture Tokyo's beauty within that kind of intoxicating hyperreality, from the grungy downmarket neighborhood where Hodaka finds a home to the grander sweep of the skyline to the branded neon Times Square Times Two Hundred neoliberal sprawl of the city's economic engine.  This is peak-peak Shinkai, and his eye for agglomerating individually-useless background detail into meaningful world-building and hypnotic sensory overload has never been keener.  (Well, except for a naked CGI shot during a nighttime fireworks show that looks like it ran full-speed into the film's well-publicized deadline problems, and looks atrocious even by the 1995 standards I think we're supposed to judge it on.  It's about the only time that this is noticeable, though, and Shinkai more than makes up for it with a host of vertiginous swooping camera moves that showcase just what's possible now in "flat" animation, at one point spinning us around a stunning full 360 degrees.)

Inevitably, effects animation remains the name of Shinkai's game—curiously, it is the first film he's done in forever where he isn't the credited "cinematographer," ceding the role to Ryƍsuke Tsuda—and for all that Weathering incorporates the essence of Your Name, the fascination with precipitation that drove Garden of Words, and even certain thematic and visual concerns from The Place Promised In Our Early Days (but done better here, which is needless to say if you've seen Early Days), in Weathering's drive towards utmost maximalism, it was always bound to have the most lighting effects, the most rain, the most emotional vistas of flight, the most, well, everything.  It's not only the visuals.  It has the most sound, too: Shinkai's collaborators from Your Name, Radwimps, were granted the opportunity with Weathering to work from a script, not footage, a rather rare occurrence in anime, and Weathering bends gracefully around their varied and excellent score, running from soaring orchestral music to melancholy valleys to ragtimish stuff that feels like it could've accompanied a Harold Lloyd movie to the electronic squeals that underline Hodaka's dashed hopes. But the most surprising part isn't the score but the original songs: a fair few pop ballads that, unlike Your Name's, aren't so distractingly plastic, and work fully in tandem with the story, especially the Toko Miura-led "Grand Escape" that gets rolled out in the climax.  Weathering has its fair share of problems, but maximalism done this beautifully is something to behold.

The weakest link of the film's aesthetic, then, is probably its character animation, which is a noted downgrade from Your Name (certain key scenes don't even try to hide the frame cycling, which isn't an enormous crime, but you expect better).  The character design is the real nit to pick: there is not a damned thing truly unlikeable about any of them, and Hina and Hodaka (everybody really) are well-acted figures, but Weathering's retrenchment into anime-standard stylization, especially when the omnipresence of rain is going to constantly bring Garden of Words' more intelligent stylization to mind, isn't anything to celebrate.  (For Christ's sake, one of Weathering's characters has purple eyes—and she's not even the magical one.)  But I feel like this is unfairly comparing the film to "Shinkai cartoons" rather than "cartoons generally," against which it competes rather well, so I'll let it go.

Besides, Weathering's aims are not animated beauty alone, but using that to get at the annihilatingly bittersweet emotional states that Shinkai has always sought.  Which is how this film, which is, I guess, "about" global climate change, and the extreme weather events associated with it, is not so much in the business of using a story about magical love to smuggle in an allegory about the Anthropocene, but using a story about the Anthropocene as an allegory for magical love, which is, pretty explicitly, the only thing the film cares about.  The constant rain isn't a metaphor for human ecological precarity; human ecological precarity, manifested in rain, is a metaphor for Hodaka's tumultuous adolescent feelings, and therefore our own, current or remembered, which is exactly how it played out in Garden of Words, except that rain represented the possibility of connection there, while sunshine does the same work here (at least until the belated third act turn and Weathering flips its metaphors on their head).  Also, Garden of Words wasn't a crazily ambitious fantasy, and did not attempt to balance the end of the world, or at least Japanese civilization, against one boy's love for one girl.

Weathering, of course, is such a fantasy.  Indeed, it's one that bears a striking resemblance to the Japanese equivalent to the Orpheus story, the tale of Izanagi and Izanami—not Shinkai's first run at that, either (more like his fourth)—except Shinkai, bless him, is much too kind and bloody-hearted an artist to give his tale an ending anywhere near as nasty as either myth's.  (Which is what I mean when I said up top that Weathering winds up being a better movie about what it isn't: the Orpheus story is about grief, and I don't know if it's a good idea to give this Orpheus story this ending, even if it certainly understands the idea of continuing to live under a cloud, and I can dimly see how it works through the somewhat different meaning of the symbols of the Izanagi story, in its Shinto context, which emphasizes how life's upward struggle goes on in the face of catastrophe, rather than how it stops.)  And, anyway, the worst move anyone could make with this filmmaker is treating his movies too literally.  Whatever vague and undercooked political point Shinkai may or may not have thought he was making was never an important aspect of this story, and he's been fairly clear that thoughts about bad weather were only the start of a creative process that led him pretty far afield.  Once this is understood, it's a much more consistent emotional experience, even if, in its longeurs, the stray threads of what "extreme weather" means physically for Tokyo do leave us with a film with a whole lot of undigested material regarding the fate of people not named "Hina" or "Hodaka."  Even so, if we accept that it's true that only people named "Hina" and "Hodaka" matter, then it all falls into place—and what is young love, if not the conviction that nothing else does matter?  And I'd be lying if I said that something deep in the pits of my dead heart didn't respond to Weathering With You in every moment, even when it was making obvious mistakes.

Score: 10/10

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